“It’s barely still morning,” he said automatically, looking up from his open textbook, the top edges of a comic peeking above its pages. “Oh, hey, creepy government guy and his eerily hot friend!”
“Hey yourself,” Ashley said with a smile as the pair came to a stop alongside him, perched on one of the campus’s low retaining walls.
“I can’t decide exactly what it is that makes you hot,” Chase said, studying her with an expression of deep contemplation. “I mean, sure, you’re pretty, but that suit hides the best parts. Maybe it’s the suit itself! Drag is so delightfully transgressive. But no, I never got that vibe from Teal…”
“It’s a dryad thing,” Fedora said, his lips twitching in a smirk. “They’re all pretty much irresistible, even the ones who aren’t your type.”
“I don’t have a type, that’s so limiting,” Chase said automatically. “But I’m prepared to believe your theory! Juniper’s just about the scorchingest thing I ever saw, not to mention a hellcat in the sack.”
“Also a dryad thing,” Ashley said, her smile widening.
“Weellll, then, I’ll just have to try out a few more to test that assertion, won’t I?” he rejoined, waggling his eyebrows. “Whaddaya say, sweetheart? Lose the spook and let’s find a nice comfy bush? Or hell, bring him along.”
She laughed. “I suggest you stick to Juniper. Any of the rest of her sisters would just kill you after. Or possibly during.”
“Present company excepted, of course…?”
Her smile widened enough to show teeth.
“Damn if that isn’t the hottest thing yet,” Chase said to Fedora.
“I don’t disagree.”
“What’s with you, by the way? You look a little…peaked.”
Ashley huffed softly in amusement and released the Inspector’s arm, taking a step away from him. Immediately the color flowed back into his pale complexion; even the shadows under his eyes and his perpetual five o’clock shadow deepened. He gave her a sardonic look.
“What is she, poisonous?” Chase asked, watching this curiously.
“So, Masterson,” Fedora said, jamming his hands in his pockets. “Had a chance to consider the deal I offered you?”
Chase blinked. “Uh… Excuse me? The whozamawhuh?”
Fedora smiled, the expression far from friendly. “Because I suspect we’re rapidly approaching a point where the option’s not going to be on the table. These Sleeper antics have managed to impact the Imperial government on multiple levels—the governance of Tiraan Province and its good relationship with Tar’naris. Not to mention the Narisians themselves, what remains of House Madouri… It is probably, barely, still possible for a settlement, but there are powerful people out for blood, now. One more straw is gonna break the donkey’s back.”
Chase slowly tilted his head to one side, his eyebrows drawing together in confusion. “Um… Yeah. The Sleeper is pissing people off. But seriously, man, I haven’t been drunk enough since all this shit started to have forgotten you making me some kind of offer, not to mention I don’t get what… Waaaait a second!” Suddenly a grin blossomed across his face. “Hang on, do you think I’m the Sleeper? Because that’s… Aw, man, that’s just too rich. Did nobody tell you I was the first one to get sleeped? I mean, come on, to have arranged all that and still be in control of everything, not to mention cursing Natchua while I was unconscious, that’d make me just about the craftiest son of a bitch on the—actually, wait up, that sounds pretty good. Is it too late to claim I am the Sleeper? Especially if it comes with a government deal? Aw, shit, I already said too much for that, didn’t I.”
He tried to pout sullenly, an effort that went mostly wasted due to the grin that kept breaking through.
Fedora just shrugged. “Welp, just thought I’d bring it up. You take care, kid.”
Chase leaned forward so far he seemed in danger of tipping off the wall, now leering avidly. “Now, stop me if I’m wrong, but didn’t I just hear that you’ve been offering deals with a crazy magic terrorist asshole? Oh me oh my, I’m not at all sure that’s something a fine, upstanding servant of his Majesty’s government such as yourself ought to be doing! Why, just imagine if Professor Tellwyrn heard about this!”
“Heard about what?” Ashley asked innocently. “From whom?”
“There’s a certain strength in being as much of a career asshole as you’ve made a point of being, kid,” Fedora said with a smirk. “People can afford to let things slip to you. Probably shouldn’t, true, just because the gods only know what a little prick like yourself would do with sensitive information. But you can tell whatever you know to whoever you wish. It’s not like anybody’s gonna listen.”
“Pfft, I’ll have you know—”
Professor Tellwyrn was suddenly there—and not teleporting out of thin air as she normally did, but stepping out from behind a nearby sapling far too small to have concealed even her slender frame. “I distinctly recall not seeing you in class this morning. Care to explain yourself?”
“It’s…it’s all the stress, teach,” Chase said tearfully, his expression transitioning to wide eyes and trembling lips without an instant’s hesitation. “I’ve lost friends, lost sleep…why, we could all be struck down at any moment! It’s just too much to—”
She blinked forward, transitioning across the space between them without actually passing through it and ending up barely a foot from Chase, who again nearly tumbled off the wall in startlement, this time backwards.
“No one is impressed, Masterson,” she said flatly, “and no one is fooled. No one is ever impressed or fooled, so stop wasting my time with these antics. Tanq has your assignments; if you break your pattern and ask quite politely he will perhaps allow you to peruse his notes. And henceforth, unless you are the one cursed, you will be in class at the appointed time. That is all.”
“Well…yes, ma’am,” he said, blinking. For once, he seemed almost at a loss for words.
“Well?” she said impatiently. “Notes! Tanq! Move!”
Chase slapped his book shut, comic and all, and hopped down. He gave her a mocking salute, but didn’t pause to so much as leer at Ashley before turning and scurrying off down the path.
“And as for you,” the Professor continued, turning on Fedora, “I believe I was explicitly plain on the subject of you badgering my students.”
“Have you seen those coon skin hats the settlers sometimes wear?” he said mildly. “Y’know, kind of a gray furry cap with the fluffy tail hanging down the back. I just ask because you’re gonna end up as one if she didn’t give you permission to wear her face like this.”
“Inspector, do you find that anyone ever knows what the hell you’re babbling about?” she said impatiently. “This is an altogether disappointing performance—if you’re serious about catching this Sleeper, I sincerely hope you have more tricks up your sleeve than just making random accusations. That’s all I’ve seen from you today, at least.”
“Uh huh,” he said dryly.
“Progress,” she said, leveling an accusing finger at him. “Make some. Quickly. Without haranguing students when you’ve no evidence. Chop chop, Fedora, time’s a-wasting.”
Tellwyrn snapped her fingers once and vanished completely with a soft whoosh of air, leaving them standing alone in the sunshine.
“Um…” Ashley turned to look expressively at Fedora. “What the fuck?”
“That’s interesting,” he mused.
“You don’t think she’s actually lost control of that…critter? I’m not even sure what kind of fairy he is.”
“Something from Sifan, they’ve got some weird shit in kitsune-land. Anyhow, if so, it’s his ass, as I mentioned. But no…” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Doesn’t fit. I think she’s just trying to be clever, now. Finally. What remains to be seen is whether she’s any good at it. I really hope she’s got more to her plan than that, or it’s gonna result in the opposite of progress.”
“Hmph.” She stepped closer and threaded her arm through his again. At her touch, his magic immediately weakened, making his illusory countenance falter. Not too badly, but enough to strongly hint at his naturally bone-white complexion. Fedora bore this without complaint or comment, allowing the dryad to tug him off down the path at a slow stroll. “Well, that doesn’t seem to have yielded anything. And after all the trouble we went to to make sure there were no elves within earshot, too. You really think that Masterson kid’s the Sleeper?”
“Nope,” he said immediately, patting her hand. At the touch, his fingers shifted for a moment, becoming long and almost delicate, before resuming the rougher, tobacco-stained and bitten nails of the Inspector when he moved his hand back away. “No, I said that to Tellwyrn in the first place, and I stand by it. The Sleeper’s a mastermind type, loves to manipulate people and create intrigues. That habit of lashing out once confronted suits Masterson, but he’s not the sort to have created all these smokescreens in the first place.”
“Okay, you lost me, then,” she said, shooting him an annoyed sidelong look. “Why did you feel the need to come poke at him, then?”
“It occurs to me,” he mused, “that we’ve been operating on an assumption that may not be warranted. After all, we know where the Sleeper’s powers come from.”
“A gift of Elilial, intended to cause trouble, yes,” she said, nodding.
“And we know the kinds of students who would be doing something as fucknut stupid as trying to summon greater djinn—of which Chase Masterson is a perfect example. We also know there was more than one kid present for that. Some of the inconsistencies in the Sleeper’s behavior begin to make sense when we ask one question: why assume the Sleeper is only one person?”
“Or has only one agenda. I could well see one of them doing this bullshit and another trying to stop it without revealing them both to Tellwyrn… So no, I don’t think Masterson’s our boy,” he said, staring ahead into the distance with a predatory glint in his eye. “But I’ve got a funny feeling that if I poke at him, it’ll eventually be felt in the right places.”
“She’s crazy,” Hawthorn hissed furiously. “I’m telling you, she’s stark raving nuts in the head! We gotta get her out of here!”
“Yeah, okay,” Mimosa said disinterestedly, studying her with her head tilted so far her ear nearly rested on her shoulder. “But…what are you wearing?”
Hawthorn was wearing a kimono, and was not the least bit happy about it. Its application had involved a large mirror and a display of inscrutable sleight of hand by Akane, the sight of which had probably been even more confusing to Milanda, who’d had a full view of the whole thing, than the dryad who had found herself stuffed into it. Even replaying the event in her head, she wasn’t sure how it had happened.
What was a little more believable (not to mention memorable) was the tongue-lashing which had ensued when Hawthorn had tried to tug the garment off. Even now, when she unconsciously fidgeted with the sash holding it together, her hands froze in the next moment and she shot an apprehensive look at Akane, who was standing near the teleport gate, speaking in a low tone with the Avatar.
“This is only the beginning,” Hawthorn warned ominously. “You just watch, if she moves in here you’re both gonna end up stuffed into these…these damn…things!”
“I dunno, that actually looks sorta nice,” Apple mused, reaching out to finger Hawthorn’s sleeve. Indeed, the kimono was of black silk embroidered with white leaves and thorns, which offset her coloration beautifully. “It’s pretty. Maybe I could try yours on? Since you don’t like it.”
“I wouldn’t mind it if I’d been allowed to try,” Hawthorn said furiously, her voice rising. “She just put me in it! That’s what she does, swaggers around jamming things at people! She’s awful!”
“Girls!” Akane barked, turning to stare disapprovingly at them. “We are having a conversation. Remain quiet, please!”
Hawthorn whirled at her and opened her mouth furiously to reply. The kitsune’s green eyes seized and held hers. A moment later, the dryad shut her mouth and hunched her shoulders.
“And stand up straight,” Akane added firmly. “Are you a tree or a bramble bush?”
She turned back to the Avatar’s panel without waiting for a reply.
“I hate her so much,” Hawthorn whispered.
They stood a good few yards distant, far enough that the kitsune was hidden from the knees down, thanks to the curvature of the tiny planet; they were due north, so she remained in view even as she walked slowly to keep pace with it as the world orbited, though the occasional tree passed between them and her. Milanda, at least, couldn’t hear the details of her discussion with the Avatar, even with her newly enhanced senses. She didn’t know the acuity of the dryads’ hearing, but suspected Akane did… Then again, Akane’s request for privacy had probably had more to do with her than them. She had little to fear from her younger sisters, who clearly understood none of what was going on. Milanda, though…
“Remember how you felt about Walker, at first?” she asked. Hawthorn scowled at her.
“…that’s different. That’s just…how she is. It’s not her fault her whole existence is a great screaming wrongness, that’s all crap that was done to her. Walker is super nice, and I can learn to ignore the scary awful part to spend time with her because she’s worth it. This one is the complete opposite.”
“I really gotta meet this Walker,” Mimosa said with a yawn.
“Yeah, you should,” Hawthorn replied, turning to her. “Walker’s awesome. I really wasn’t expecting to learn we had other sisters, but so far it hasn’t been all bad.” Again, she glared accusingly at Akane in the distance.
“I think you have your priorities right, there,” Milanda said with what she hoped was an encouraging smile. The nap she’d managed was not enough for this kind of cat-herding… “Judge people by the way they act, not your instinctive reactions to them. I just mean there might be something more to Akane than you’ve seen so far.”
“Do you like her?” Hawthorn said pointedly.
“No,” Milanda replied, not caring in the least if Akane could hear her, “I really don’t. But she’s not my sister. And whether I like someone has no bearing on whether I can work with them and speak to them respectfully.” Most days, she wanted to slap Empress Eleanora on general principles, but there was almost as little point in discussing that as in doing it. “Akane, if she decides to, may be able to help fix the Hands.”
“Hm,” Apple grunted, folding her arms and studying Milanda thoughtfully. “So…I guess that tells us what you’re concerned with.”
“Hey, yeah,” Mimosa added. “If she sticks around, you get what you want! Is that why you’re trying to foist her off on us?”
“Foist, that’s a good word,” Hawthorn said emphatically, nodding.
Milanda cracked a rueful smile in spite of herself. “You girls are pretty smart, you know that?”
“Yes,” Hawthorn said, while Apple and Mimosa blushed and tittered, respectively.
“I’m serious, though,” Milanda continued. “In my honest opinion, if Akane stays around… Well, she’s going to irritate the hell out of you. Frankly think you’ll find her very difficult to get along with. But, as hard as it might be to believe, I think that in the end you’ll benefit from it.”
“You’re crazy,” Hawthorn said bluntly.
Milanda drew in a breath and let it out, resisting the urge to rub at her eyes. “You girls haven’t had any kind of upbringing, you know that?”
“We don’t need one,” Mimosa said petulantly. “We’re dryads.”
“And yet,” Milanda persisted, “Akane walked in here, immediately started pushing you around, and so far, you’ve let her.”
That brought all three of them up short. They glanced uncertainly at one another, then at the kitsune, who was still apparently ignoring them.
“Dryads get left alone because you’re powerful, and because Naiya looks out for you,” Milanda went on. “But that leaves you vulnerable to other things. You can be manipulated, pushed into things you don’t necessarily like. There’s an art to dealing with other people, you see. Your…eldest sisters have learned it. Mastered it, even. Frankly, I think that for you to learn it will end up benefiting you more than enough to be worth the frustration Akane would almost certainly cause you in the process.”
“I am not convinced,” Hawthorn stated.
“Well, let me tell you about my situation, then, since you brought it up,” said Milanda. “First of all, if I were being selfish here, I wouldn’t be encouraging you to learn how to be more crafty. This whole system works the way it does because an Imperial politician keeps control of it. My personal loyalty is to that politician. And why are the humans in control? It’s not as if they’re stronger than you.”
This sparked another round of dubious glances, but she pressed on.
“And as for Akane, as I’ve already said to her, involving her in this will only decrease the Empire’s control more. She’s at least as powerful as you three, and a lot more cunning.” Milanda glanced again at the kitsune, who continued not to acknowledge them. “What it comes down to is… By encouraging this, I’m sacrificing a lot of the Throne’s authority over this whole…thing. I’m willing to do it because I believe it’s right, because I believe that all of our self-interests coincide here. I think Empress Theasia was wrong to manipulate and bully everyone the way she did. I think that having us all on the same page and with nobody left in the dark will make all this better. I have that much confidence in Sharidan, and in the Empire. And…if, someday, the Empire turns into something that isn’t as just or fair, I’m not unhappy at the thought of there being neutral parties down here—like you, and Akane, and Walker—who can lean on it if necessary.”
“Hum,” Apple said. The other two just frowned.
Milanda had the thought, not for the first time, that it was difficult to tell decades or centuries of uneducated, undeveloped thought from simple stupidity. Her conversations with the dryads were generally somewhat frustrating, just because they talked and related like spoiled children. However, once in a while a beam of intelligence would shine through, as it did now. They were all thinking, which spoke well of their mental faculties; the churlish brats they sometimes acted like could probably not have followed her argument. If Akane forcibly adopted them all the way she seemed to be trying to do with Hawthorn, they might eventually become something truly formidable. Provided they didn’t kill her or something first.
Which made her hope all the more fervently that she was right. The more she contemplated this, the more it began to appear that by fixing the Hands in this manner, she was wresting ultimate control away from the Throne itself. That made the prospect of simply destroying them and their whole system one she had to consider… But she hadn’t lied to the dryads. Her feeling was that this was still the right thing to do—for the Empire, for the world, and for Sharidan.
If only she could be more confident that her own reasoning was working as it should. She was just so damned tired…
“Hey, are you okay?” Mimosa asked suddenly. “You’re, uh…kinda swaying there.”
“She hasn’t slept much,” said Hawthorn, and Milanda couldn’t help finding her guilty expression somewhat endearing. “Part of that’s my fault, I wrecked her nap. You wanna lie down for a bit, Milanda? We’ll letcha know if she comes back over here, kay?”
“Oh, no, I’m fine,” she said, and immediately had to smother a yawn. “Well… I think I’ll sit down, if that’s okay. But I’d rather keep alert.”
“If you want,” Apple assured her while she folded herself carefully to the ground. “No sense in forcing yourself, though. Really, relax. This is our place; let us show a little hospitality.”
“Well, I guess…if you don’t…” Somehow, she’d ended up lying on her back. When had that happened? The grass was so much softer than she remembered grass being…
It was only happenstance that she saw her coming. Maureen had been pacing back and forth in front of the telescroll office, clutching her Pack, long enough that the townsfolk about in the square had stopped giving her curious looks, and even so she had yet to decide whether she was going to go in or go back up the mountain. Iris, though, was such a distinctive sight, a tall and slim figure in her characteristic white dress which made her dark skin stand out, that Maureen couldn’t help but notice her approach the square.
She cringed and scuttled around behind the telescroll office, cradling her Pack against her chest for comfort. Had Iris seen her? She didn’t seem to have been looking in her direction…
After a moment, she took the extra precaution of scurrying forward and dropping off the platform next to the Rail line. There she was hidden…sort of. The platform was taller than she. Still, she couldn’t help feeling exposed even here…
Maureen took off again, ducking under the Rail between the spokes holding it up—which would have been a very tight squeeze for a human, but she didn’t even have to drop to her knees—and darted across to the base of the little footbridge which arced over the Rail itself, terminating in the small structure which housed a few benches where the stagecoaches stopped to discharge and take on passengers unwilling or unable to use the Rail line. There was no coach now, of course; just the dusty old road stretching away to either side, and ahead nothing but endless golden prairie until it reached the Wyrnrange, far over the horizon to the west.
She stopped inside the little shelter, catching her breath and coping with the shame of it all. Honestly…bad enough to be down here. Bad enough to be dithering this way… Now running from her own friend? And just because she couldn’t—no, just didn’t want to—face what she was doing. Her mother would’ve taken the rolling pin to her for such craven behavior.
Maureen sighed, and clambered up onto one of the benches, setting her Pack beside her. Well, at least there was seating, here. It was a better place to think—to dither, honestly—than out in the square in front of the scrolltower.
Now if only there were something conveniently provided in this little shelter to help her reach a decision…
So quickly and completely had she sunk back into her funk that the sound of footsteps on the bridge didn’t even register with her.
“Are you okay?”
Maureen started violently, then flushed, finding herself facing exactly the person she’d been running from. Iris leaned around the edge of the shelter, frowning at her in concern.
“Um, if you wanna be alone, I won’t bother you. Sorry, I didn’t mean to sneak up on you, it’s just that you look… Well, if you need any help, you know I’m here, right?”
Maureen opened her mouth to try to dissuade her with some platitude, and accidentally blurted out truth.
“I’m leaving the school.”